The Kid

The Kid,
Directed by Vincent D’Onofrio
Starring Dane DeHaan, Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt, Jake Schur, Leila George

A boy with a gun ain’t a boy…

The story of Henry McCarty, better known as William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, has long-since entered legend – really the young outlaw’s life was already half myth and legend even in his short lifetime (he was shot dead at the age of only 21), and he remains one of the most famous figures to come out of that short (but hugely influential in movies, TV and other media ever since) history of the Old West, and his relationship with Pat Garrett, the lawman who hunted him down, and it has been told and retold in many ways over the decades. The Kid takes a more unusual approach, however – you could take the title as a reference to DeHaan’s Billy, but equally it could apply to young Rio (Jake Schur), a teenage boy who, along with his older sister Sara (Leila George), finds himself in the orbit of Billy and Pat (Ethan Hawke).

The film begins with violence, a man beating his wife – Rio and Sara’s mother. Rio begs his brutal father to stop, but he keeps hitting his mother, until the teenage boy picks up his pistol and shoots him dead with it. He’s too late, his monster of a father had already beaten his mother to death. His father’s outlaw friends, headed by their uncle, Grant Cutler (his father’s brother) – a heavily-bearded Chris Pratt, playing against his regular type – are outside the simple homestead, hear the gun go off and try to break in, but the children escape, trying to flee through the night to Santa Fe where they know a friend of their mother lives. It is on this journey that they encounter Billy and his gang, shortly before they are captured by Pat Garrett and his lawmen.

As the story unfolds we see young Rio (named for the river, which Billy once lived near too) struggling with events – he feels he has to be the man of the family, protect his sister even though she is the older, and he is wrestling with his conscience; his father was a brutal abuser, he may well have deserved to be shot, but it’s still no small thing to take a life. This becomes a central issue for Rio, Pat and Billy. Both like the kid (although Garrett doesn’t know what he has done yet, but he suspects), and each of them will, at different points, talk to the boy about their lives, about how early circumstances in a hard life, even younger than he is now, shaped the existence they’ve lead, one outlaw, one lawman.

This is an era and place where men rarely talked about feelings, and the Western in general often sticks to that approach, stories where Real Men suck it in and just carry on without dwelling on what they have had to do. Not so here as both Hawke’s Garrett and DeHaan’s Billy both at different points round a night-time camp fire tell Rio about their youthful hardships and, crucially, about the first time they had to take a life. In both cases they start in a matter of fact way, but as the stories go on, the emotion wells up in their voices. I was reminded of William Munny in the brilliant Unforgiven, “it’s a hell of a thing to kill a man. Take away everything he ever was, everything he ever will be.” Yes, these are tough cowboys of the West, but they are still people and these events that marked them, made them, have had a deep psychological impact that they mostly hide within, but can share with Rio.

This emotional guilt and honesty touches young Rio as he worries about his own culpability in shooting his father. Both men, in their own ways, have reached out to him, bared their own emotional scars that are much like his (the loss of family in early life, the violence, the killing). Rio is, effectively, being given two alternative father figures in Billy and Pat, as he stands at a crossroads of his own life – which kind of path will he follow, one like Billy, or one like Pat? In fact will he get to choose, or will trying to rescue his sister from the monstrous Grant Cutler force him down a path regardless?

It’s unusual these days for us to see a Western – the genre that once dominated early cinema is now a rarity. Thankfully in The Kid we have a beautifully-shot Western that explores hard lives and hard decisions, they way they can shape us, dominate what we will become.

This is a slow-burn tale, with moments of sudden violence, with a rich emotional undercurrent, and some quite gorgeous cinematography. cinematographer Matthew J Lloyd deserves special praise on that score; film is, after all, a visual medium, and the Western requires strong, iconic visuals more than most genres. Here Lloyd’s lighting and camera moves and angles craft some beautiful cinematic scenes, making even some scenes set around the town gallows look striking, or Rio practising with a pistol, framed by a golden-leafed tree, many of the scenes drenched in that marvellous light quality of the American Southwest. That richness of the visuals and the emotional honesty of Rio, Garrett and Billy combine to make this an utterly absorbing take on an Old West legend.

The Kid is released by Lionsgate on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital from June 3rd

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Death Trench

Death Trench,
Directed by Leo Scherman,
Starring Rossif Sutherland, Robert Stadlober, Charlie Carrick, Shaun Benson, Ted Atherton

Mixing the horror genre with the war film is not a new, and even in recent years we’ve had examples such as Overlord and Outpost, and of course anyone who reads the Hellboy comics will be familiar with mad Nazi scientists that dabble in the dark magics. Death Trench (aka Trench 11) takes a slightly different tack, being set in the final days of the First World War rather than the second. Canadian Lieutenant Berton (Sutherland), is a miner, a tunneller, a sapper who has spent the war not in the trenches but under them, the old Medieval tactic of undermining a fortified position has come back in this statics war of attrition.

After a terrifying cave-in which he barely survived, he’s enjoying some well-deserved R&R and spending time with his French girlfriend. He is none too happy when some military police come looking for him to drag him back in for another mission. Allied intelligence has gotten wind of a secret German underground complex – not bunkers amid the main lines, but miles behind the front lines. As the German lines are starting to crumble and they know it has been hastily abandoned – it isn’t a fortification, they think it is a secret chemical weapons lab. They know one of those involved is a ruthless German scientist who has been one of those developing new strains of previous chemical weapons. With the chaos of retreat there is a chance to investigate and find out what they were doing in this underground lair, and Berton’s tunneller skills are required, along with the intelligence agents and a small escort group of American Doughboys, who are none to happy with being assigned to this mission when they all know the war is coming to an end.

What they find is a secret research bunker, a complex of claustrophobic tunnels and rooms, which should have been destroyed when abandoned, but the demolition charges failed to blow. As the small team, already at loggerheads with one another, descend into the world below they don’t know that Herr Doctor Reiner (Stadlober) is leading a German team back to salvage experimental materials then destroy the complex before the Allies find it. And that’s the least of their problems – German soldiers they are used to dealing with, but some of the test subjects of those secret experiments by Reiner are still down there in the dark, waiting…

The set-up here is fairly simple: two groups of enemy soldiers that will come into contact with one another, but find there is something far, far worse, something that doesn’t care what uniform you are wearing. It may not be the most original plot, but it carries along quite well. The small budget actually works for them in having those small, closed, underground sets, which are budget-effective but also pretty damned good for generating that enclosed, trapped sense of mounting claustrophobia, even before the Bad Things start to appear, and the effects for the experimental subjects is also well-handled.

Sutherland’s war-weary tunneller and Stadlober’s ruthless scientist are the stand-outs here, and they get much of the screen time (I had the feeling Stadlober was relishing playing the seemingly urbane, civilised scientist who is actually totally amoral and determined to finish his work). It’s also interesting to see World War One used instead of the more common Second World War – while not mind-blowing this is still a decently solid addition to the horror-war genre.

Death Trench is released on DVD and digital from May 6th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Leprechaun Returns

Leprechaun Returns,
Directed by Steven Kostanski,
Starring Taylor Spreitler, Pepi Sonuga, Sai Bennett, Linden Porco, Mark Holton

The original 1993 Leprechaun was a fun piece of horror laced with comedy, very much in the style of this mid 80s to 90s US horror flicks (and it also boasted a pre-Friends mega-fame Jennifer Aniston). Naturally like many other 80s and 90s horror flicks it spawned a franchise with another six outings over the last couple of decades, and like similar franchises (think what happened with Freddy or Jason) it was often a law of diminishing returns. Leprechaun Returns, made for the SyFy Channel, rather wisely appears to be ignoring the many sequels and instead sees our pint-sized folkloric nasty resurrected some twenty-five years after the original movie, even boasting an appearance from Mark Holton as Ozzie from the original 1993 film (a nice touch).

A group of students have decided to set up an eco-friendly sorority house off-campus in the rural farmhouse from the first film, an off-grid house with solar power and drawing water from, yes, you guessed it, the old well where the Leprechaun was supposedly killed and banished, and has been for the last quarter of a century, everything fine. Lila (Taylor Spreitler) is the daughter of Jennifer Aniston’s character from the first film, moving in with her sorority sisters to fix the old place up. She experiences some premonition-like dreams on the way there, but she puts this down to the stress of recently caring for her terminally ill mother, and continues her college plans and moving into the house with the others, unaware that the little, green, mean, rhyming monster has been awoken from his twenty five year slumber (in a pretty gruesome but darkly funny “rebirth” scene).

Lila heard her mother’s stories, but understandably never believed her tales of some murderous leprechaun with a gold fixation and a penchant for bloody killings, and her first encounter with the leprechaun (now played by Linden Porco) she is convinced for the first few moments that she is seeing things, it’s all in her head, stress from caring for her mother in her last days mixed with those stories she never believed in, but it doesn’t take long to realise he’s very real. Her sororoity sisters and a couple of visiting boyfriends, fairly understandably, think their new friend is crazy, but not for long.

This cracks along at a fair old pace, from the set-up and introducing the new characters we get to the rebirth of the leprechaun himself pretty swiftly, which is good as that’s when the fun begins! Bad rhyming and black humour mixes with some inventive blood-letting as the leprechaun decides some killing – and finding his precious gold, of course – will help to regenerate his powers (he has some ‘performance’ issues with his first attempts after his incarceration).

Okay, you know this isn’t Shakespeare, but so too do the film-makers, and Kostanski delivers a decent mix of dark humour (including some nice touches like the leprechaun taking in the changes since he was last above ground, like mobile phones and selfies, or making fun on an electric car) with the gore and deaths (I won’t spoil them by describing any of them – sure, you can see them coming, but that’s part of the fun in this kind of flick), and ignoring the previous sequels and leading right on from events years before in the original is a good move, as are the nice touches linking the new film to its progenitor. Porco seems to be relishing the role, wicked grin through the grotesque make-up as he delivers blood and bad puns and rhymes, and there’s also a small but welcome sub-theme on gender empowerment.

This is a fun popcorn horror flick, and with Lionsgate releasing this in a double-pack with the original 1993 film this is a good Friday night double-bill slice of horror – set up the snacks and drinks and sit back and have some fun!

Submergence

Submergence,
Directed by Wim Wenders,
Starring Alicia Vikander, James McAvoy, Hakeemshady Mohamed, Alexander Siddig

Submergence, based on the novel by J.M Ledgard, has what on paper sounds like a straightforward plot structure – two people, Danielle Flinders (Alicia Vikander), a scientist exploring the deepest parts of the ocean for life, meets James More (James McAvoy), a former Scottish soldier turned water engineer, both taking a break in a beautiful Normandy hotel before their next missions, she off to sea on the research vessel L’Atalante (a nod to the famous film of the same name, I would imagine), and he to Africa for a new water project. After some playful banter the two start to fall for each other, Danny at first reluctant, mostly married to her research, but drawn to James, with what could have been a brief, happy fling flowering into something far deeper. And then they are pulled apart to go their ways, but both now eager to meet once more, to develop their relationship further.

Except that while James did tell Danny he was a former soldier turned engineer, he didn’t tell her that his water engineer life is a cover for spy work for British intelligence, and he’s not going to dig wells in Kenya, but to Somalia, where he is soon taken prisoner by Jihadist terrorists. The film cuts back and forth between James, held prisoner in Africa, and Danny at sea, James clinging to warm memories of her face, her voice, her touch and dreaming of seeing her again, Danny, oblivious to his plight is growing increasingly anxious about not being able to contact him on his phone, their thoughts and dreams cross-connecting the two strands of their stories as they are separated.

As I said, the lovers brought together then pushed apart by fate is a fairly simple narrative device, but veteran director Wenders is not noted for sticking to the plain and simple – I must confess I have a huge admiration for his work such as Paris, Texas, Until the End of the World and, of course, the achingly beautiful Wings of Desire. And I appreciate that he rarely takes the obvious path, although I think perhaps this film is less unusual than many of his other works, in some way more straightforward and accessible to the non-Wenders initiate than some of his earlier films.

It is, unsurprisingly for one of Wenders’ movies, beautifully shot, be it the Normandy coast, the landscapes of Africa, the open ocean or the deepest, darkest places of the vast oceans. Even the prison cell takes on a strange beauty and symbolism – dark save for one shaft of light from a window high, high above, reached by a sloping shaft, it echoes Danny’s descent into the lightless ocean floor, and James finds himself musing about how he too has found himself in his own deep abyss, just like his lover. Orpheus and Eurydice, perhaps, except here it is Orpheus who is lost in the gloom of the Underworld.

I did have some issues with the film though – some of the dialogue felt rather stilted, something that should have been worked out better in rehearsals and editing, I feel, and for such a career-driven person it sometimes felt a little off that Danny becomes so emotionally churned up from not being able to contact James and wondering why he won’t reply to her. But I mostly forgive the film the flaws, because it is, as always with Wenders, a beautiful piece of work to watch, the gorgeous cinematography matched by having two very attractive actors in the lead roles, the music (by Fernando Velazquez) is wonderfully atmospheric, and a luscious compliment to Wenders’ rich visual tapestry. It’s an unusual love story, mixed with elements of the spy thriller, exploration and environmental change, with two gifted and very beautiful stars and luscious cinematography. While not ranking with Wenders’ best, this is still worthy of a couple of hours of your time. And let’s be honest, if you are already a Wenders fan, you know you’re going to have to see it, just because it is by Wenders…

Submergence is available from Lionsgate on digital download from March 4th, and on Blu-Ray and DVD from March 11th

Tehran Taboo

Tehran Taboo,
Directed by Ali Soozandeh,
Peccadillo Pictures

Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) is a single mother in Tehran, struggling to look after her mute young son Elias (Bilal Yasar), while her worthless husband is in jail on drugs charge, and refusing continually to sign consent forms for a divorce to let her go free. Meantime she is forced into sex work to try and make ends meet, leading to a pretty interesting opening scene in Ali Soozandeh’s intriguing look at the sides of life in modern Tehran that the religious rulers of that country like to pretend only exist in morally corrupt other societies, but of course regardless of what supposed standards they might claim exist people are people in any city anywhere.

We first see Pari being picked up by a middle-aged man cruising the streets; soon she is in his car (her young son in the back, as she has no-one to look after him), and her John is haggling over price (Pari is pretty good at standing up for herself), until she tells him firmly the best he is getting for that money is fellatio. This proceeds as the car is driving through a busy evening in the city and any hints of exploitation or titillation are quickly dispelled between, shall we say, performance issues for the John, then he catches sight of a young woman walking the busy night-time streets with a boyfriend. He realises it is his own daughter and moves to Indignant Protective Dad mode (despite having Pari’s head in his lap), the boy is – gasp – holding her hand! “Pervert!” he shouts. Raising her head from his groin Pari can’t help but comment “look who’s talking.”

This very much sets the tone for Soozandeh’s film – looking at the intimate, hidden sides of life (in a society where unwed couples holding hands in public can be arrested for indecency), but doing so with a nicely irreverent touch (not so much broad comedy, more the sort of humour that just often comes out of situations in everyday life). The film follows several characters like Pari, Sara (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi ), the daughter-in-law of her neighbours in the new apartment she is moved into (the same judge who refuses to sign her divorce without the husband’s papers is happy to arrange to have her as a sexual partner on the side), and Babak (Arash Marandi), a young musician. Pari pretends her husband is a long-distance truck driver to explain his absence and that she works as a nurse, hence her regular night-time excursions, but they all have secrets to keep hidden.

We start to learn those secret lives in the individual strands, which then cross lines with Pari’s story throughout the film, a little like Short Cuts, all of which is delivered with Rotoscoping animation over the live actors, giving the film a very interesting visual style, like Waltz With Bashir or A Scanner Darkly. This approach allows for some interesting visuals – Babak, attempting to take an intimate phone call on the train where you never know who may be listening (and happy to report you to the religious police), turns towards the window, and the camera moves outside the carriage to look in at him on the other side of the window, or Pari and Sara having an evening out eating in an open-air cafe in a beautiful, colourfully-lit square at night, or a view from the apartment over an animated, nocturnal cityscape of Tehran.

Running throughout these tales of hidden lives and secrets is a strong theme of hypocrisy, of those standing up and pretending to be ultra-moral while content to indulge in any number of prescribed acts, most especially the men in positions of authority who continually try to control the women in society (they can do almost nothing without having a form signed by a husband or father), who act as if such moral “deviancy” is beneath them (one is reminded of the string of high profile televangelists in the US who condemn “sin” then we find out they’ve been indulging in endless extra-marital affairs and drugs).

It’s a theme that could have been delivered in a grimmer, darker fashion, but Soozandeh’s lighter touch manages to bring over these serious subjects (ones rarely discussed openly in such a conservative, highly monitored society) without wearing down the viewer; there are some upsetting and emotional scenes, but the humour of the everyday, and the satirical touches riffing on the hypocritical nature of a society pretending these problems only happen in decadent Western countries when in reality the same troubles happen to people, well, everywhere, no matter what any politician or religious leader likes to say.

Peccadillo Pictures has a reputation for bringing us intriguing films from different countries, often dealing with hidden, moral, sexual or taboo subjects, and Tehran Taboo fits very nicely into their stable of films, with the added bonus of giving us a glimpse into a society most of us don’t see in cinema too often, from a very human, everyday life perspective.

Tehran Taboo is out now on DVD and VoD from Peccadillo Pictures

It’s not over till the fat lady screams: Opera

Opera,
Directed by Dario Argento,
Starring Cristina Marsillach, Urbano Barberini, Ian Charleson, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, William McNamara,
CultFilms

A young understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), gets her big break when the temperamental diva storms out of a rehearsal of the opera of Macbeth, slap into an oncoming car outside the opera house. In a bizarre mixture of elements of Phantom of the Opera with the Giallo serial killer sub-genre, this accidental promotion to leading lady on a major production proves to be more of a curse than a blessing, as attacks and bodies start to mount rapidly, all happening around Betty in a deliberate and sadistic campaign of terror.

So much for the plot: this is, after all, a Dario Argento film, and as such the narrative is neither the strongest or most important element for the most part. And I don’t mean that in a snarky way; like many of my fellow horror-hounds I have long loved Argento’s films, but most really are frequently bonkers on the logical story front. Not that it matters, as, in my opinion anyway, Argento horrors are far more about the experience, the dream (or nightmare) imagery and sounds, the emotional reactions these draw, and it is part of what makes his body of work so distinctive and visceral.

Opera is one of Argento’s more lavish works, making great use of the grand opera house location, but doing so in a very Argento manner. The opening scenes of the rehearsal give us great views of the interior of this grand theatre, but from perspectives that are unusual, even distorted, while the collection of ravens being used in the production caw ominously, followed by a long reverse tracking shot, all seen from the diva’s perspective, as she storms out. Another (handheld this time?) tracking shot takes us through young Betty’s apartment in an almost Sam Raimi-esque fashion, intimating an immediate threat to her, only for the tension to dissipate when we see it is just her friend visiting.

The film is replete with clever camera moves like these, or shots which go through the claustrophobia of a ventilation duct out into the vast, baroque space of the opera house interior and swings around the stage, creating not only some stunning visuals but also generating a disturbing sense of dislocation, of things being out of kilter, of someone or something watching, just out of sight. When not indulging in some skilfully mobile camera moves Argento also creates some more close-up, intimate moments of tension and horror, such as the killer’s point of view perspective (just those iconic Giallo killer’s leather gloves visible).

And then there is that scene – many of you will know the one I mean, it has passed into horror movie history as an incredibly inventive, disturbing and iconic shots. Betty, tied up by the killer (again only glimpses of his leather gloves), but she is not the main target, rather she is the sadistic victim, restrained, needles taped to her cheeks below her eyes so she dare not blink, forcing her to watch as the killer waits for her boyfriend to enter and be slaughtered.

From Un Chien Andalou onwards film horror has often had a fascination with the eye – even for those of us brought up on the body horror of Cronenberg and others, there remains something compelling and sickening about a threat to the eyeball. And of course it isn’t just about the Giallo killer’s desire to torture Betty by making her watch him kill the victims before her helpless, captive gaze, it is, by extension including the audience, our perverse thrill at watching such scenes, a feeling reinforced by often shooting from the killer’s perspective, placing the audience in his shoes (or in this case his leather gloves), giving us both the thrill while also disturbing us with the thought we are virtually complicit in these horrors.

CultFilm’s loving 2K restoration gives these astonishing, bravura locations and inventively shot scenes the lustre and beauty they richly deserve, allowing the viewer to glory in that partly-insane, dream/nightmare trip that is Argento’s mind.

Opera is released by CultFilms on dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD on January 21st, and includes several tasty extras such as an interview with Argento himself

House of Salem

House of Salem,
Directed by James Crow,
Starring Liam Kelly, Jack Brett Anderson, Jessica Arterton, Leslie Mills

First debuting at FrightFest’s New Blood strand in 2016, James Crow’s Brit-horror House of Salem finally gets a DVD release. Josh (Liam Kelly) is a young child with special needs, being left in the care of a teenage babysitter while his parents go for an evening out. As she puts him to bed she teases him that he is getting a bit old for taking a cuddly toy to sleep with – a cuddly lamb – but he is adamant that he needs it and she acquiesces, leaving him to sleep and returning down stairs to indulge in the grand babysitter tradition of chatting on the phone. The peace of a domestic slumbering evening is about to be broken, however, as a group of creepily masked intruders make their way into the home, intent on snatching the boy. So far it’s not that different from any number of other home intrusion thrillers we’ve seen, except Josh hears a spectral warning just before the attack, and attempts to hide and evade his pursuers while his babysitter bravely tries to defend him, but it’s no use, and he is soon in the bag.

Taken to a large but isolated old country house the masked gang, Josh is locked into one of the bedrooms while the gang’s leader Jacob (Leslie Mills) awaits more instructions from their mysterious employers, who will only get in touch via an old, vintage Bakelite landline phone. It is when they settle in for the long wait that the first cracks start to appear, as the different personalities in the gang assert themselves – the belligerent one who thinks nothing of violence or even murder, the cooler headed-one, the solitary women in the group, Nancy (Jessica Arterton), who seems least happy with the whole thing and is clearly protective of the child, despite having taken part in his kidnapping. Mills’ Jacob plays the hard-man leader, the sort who rarely shouts but is all the more threatening and scary for his seeming reserve – you just know this is a man who has done bad things and will do so again in a split second if anyone crosses him, and his authority forces the arguing individuals of his team to try and get along as they wait the night out.

But this is no kidnapping for ransom, this child and this location have been chosen by their mysterious employers quite carefully and carry an awful history of previous, similar events, and it is a history Josh can see and hear. Josh lost a sibling years before and this closeness to death has left him sensitive – he hears noises and voices, then sees figures, usually other children his age, dressed in white sleepwear like him (his hooded onesie recalls Where the Wild Things Are) and bloodied. Are these trapped spirits of other children who had been brought here, and if so, what were they brought for. As with most heist/crime stories they are at their most compelling when it all goes wrong, and between the bickering gang members and then changing plans from their distant employers, then the external threat of someone else being around this supposedly safe house (creepily leaving a dead game animal hanging from a garden tree). No, this is no ransom for money at all, this has a darker – a satanic – element to it and Josh is part of that ritual, and it may be that Jacob knows more about the real reasons behind it all than he is letting on.

While House of Salem has flaws, I’m not going to dwell on them as I think they were mostly down to the perennial problem for all Indy film-makers, lack of budget and shooting time. And while their resources may be slender (Primeval’s Andrew Lee Potts is billed as a star but in truth is only in it for a short time), Crow makes the most of what he has. It’s remarkable how much creepiness you can get just from figures in masks, both the kidnappers, then the Satanic cult members, both groups using very simple masks, nothing elaborate or complex here, but quite chilling in the way they dehumanise the figures and make them quite terrifying.

The mix of 70s style hidden Satanic cult and the crime gone wrong bickering gang works well, and while most of the gang are stereotypes, Arterton’s Nancy is fleshed out more, her backstory slowly emerging (and her relation to leader Jacob, a sort of surrogate father figure), which gives more reason for her defence of Josh. Liam Kelly is quite outstanding as Josh, this young lad gives a superb performance in a complex emotional role as a traumatised child with psychological and emotional problems already, then dealing with the kidnapping, the voices and the visions, it’s quite a performance from one so young.

The film also works in some nice symbology too, notably the image of the lamb and blood which recurs and becomes increasingly creepy as it builds to a climax in the third reel. An intersting, inventive and frequently creepy Brit-horror, ideal for some late Saturday night viewing.

House of Salem is released on DVD and Digital by Left Films from October 1st

Creeping folk horror in Dogged

Dogged,
Directed by Richard Rowntree,
Starring Sam Saunders, Debra Leigh-Taylor, Nadia Lamin, Philip Ridout, Jo Southwell, Aiysha Jebali, Toby Wynn-Davies

Richard Rowntree has being paying his dues in the movie business for years, working on all sorts of productions large and small, crafting some of his own short films, and now his directorial feature debut, Dogged. And it is a rather tasty, creepy slice of British folk horror at that.

Young Sam (Sam Saunders) returns to his home, a small island whose causeway is submerged twice a day at high tide, leaving it isolated. The opening montage of rural and coastal scenes would normally be restful, but Rowntree picks angles and perspectives that right from the start convey an impression of something wrong, something out of kilter, of leaving the regular world behind and entering somewhere that conforms not to society’s wider norms but to its own, secretive rules. Just to reinforce the unwelcoming atmosphere, his father picks him up by the causeway without so much as a “hello”, just a bad-tempered “hurry up, the tide is coming in”, while the signs where causeway meets the island all make clear visitors are not welcome here.

Sam was born and raised on the island, but escaped its cloying, inward-looking small community to go to university. He’s only returned now, reluctantly, to attend the funeral of the young daughter of one of their neighbours, supposedly killed in an accidental fall from the cliffs. Except Sam finds it hard to believe this was an accident, all the local kids know to avoid the cliffs… At the memorial service in the small local church the vicar (a superbly, quietly menacing and creepy Toby Wynn-Davies) gives a sermon which seems more of a veiled warning to the mourners than it is a message of hope or comfort. The padre clearly has some power over his local community, more than just a spiritual leader, and he is less than happy to see Sam return as he knows his daughter is fond of Sam, and this is a man who obviously does not like challenges to his authority.

Rowntree litters Dogged with some inventive camera angles and perspectives that make even a leafy country lane or what should be a comforting house becoming filled with menace, along with other nice little touches (the young couple walking into the local tearoom sees all conversation stop as they are stared at, like a scene from a cowboy saloon in a Western). Figures are glimpsed in the woods, one even knocks Sam from his bike before running off, another is lurking near his gran’s house, and for some reason these young men all run around topless sporting animal head masks. It all builds tension throughout the film – it is clear some in the village are not who they seem, that there are secrets, but what secrets, and are they related to the death of the young girl?

Sam is as far from the pro-active horror hero as you can get, a young man who has been under his strict father’s thumb for so long that although he tries to investigate he is often fairly passive and pushed along by events and other characters, although it is hard not to feel sorry for him – he has escaped what he thought was an overbearing, isolated community, come back briefly and found himself not only drowning in it once more, but being submerged into darker, hidden depths that he hadn’t known were there.

I’m guessing Rowntree didn’t have access to a big budget, but he marshals what resources he has quite effectively. The aforementioned clever use of odd camera angles and perspectives, the expressions on the faces of the locals, the simple sight of half-naked male figures in animal head masks lurking in the woods, all combine to raise the tension steadily, leading to a satisfying final reel. Rural horror often plays on the sense of the small, isolated community, and by having this on an island cut off twice a day Rowntree increases that sense of isolation and difference, as well as adding a feeling of claustrophobia, both generally (across the whole community) and more personally (Sam’s own family) and that “you don’t really belong” sense. I was put in mind numerous times of the original Wicker Man, which I think Rowntree was channeling very well here, offering us a creepy, disturbing slice of Brit horror.

Dogged is out now from Left Films

“You shall go to the ball…” – Cinderella

Cinderella,
Directed by Beeban Kidron,
Starring Marcella Plunkett, Jane Birkin, Kathleen Turner, Gideon Turner, David Warner, Katrin Cartlidge, Lucy Punch, Leslie Phillips
Simply Media

The Cinderella story is pretty much an archetype – variations on the theme of the innocent, warm-hearted young lass who finds herself in awful conditions through no fault of her own, before finally finding good fortune and true love go back many centuries, with that scribbler of old fairy tales Charles Perrault in the late 1690s and the Grimms in the early 1800s crystalising the story into the form we’re familiar with today. This version is a television film from 2000, which aired on Channel 4, and boasts some solid British thesps like David Warner, Leslie Phillips and the late (and much-missed) Katrin Cartlidge, joined by Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone, Body Heat).

With such a well-known story there is always a question of why do another version? In this case it’s easily answered – because the film-makers have reworked it to be more relevant to the modern day, and in a manner that the younger viewers can enjoy, but which works well for the teen/YA and the adult audience. It is set in a sort of fantasy kingdom of strangely coloured skies, which has the traditional horse drawn carriages, palaces and country mansions, but also open topped cars and steam trains, royal orchestras but also a guitar playing, singing Prince. The Prince and his friends come across as a playful pastiche of the modern, hipper young Royals, the wicked stepmother (Turner) and her nasty daughters aren’t just nasty and spiteful to poor Cinders, they are also a nice comment on modern, super-shallow celeb culture, creatures who are empty inside but made-up exquisitely for outward appearance, the sort who appear in the pages of Hello and its ilk.

David Warner’s father returns from a business trip with a “surprise” – a new wife and step-daughters, to the shock of his daughter. Her shock is furthered by the way her new stepmother so obviously manipulates her widowed father and allows his new stepdaughters to bully her. This swiftly escalates from subtle manipulation to the far more obvious kind of control – Turner’s wicked stepmother is soon quite clear she is in this for money and the noble connections. Warner’s father has the noble title but not much money, so he is soon banished to sleep in the attic – “You know the rule: cash equals company.” despite this he still refuses to see what is going on (no fool like an old fool), and his daughter becomes increasingly isolated in what was once her own loving home.

A woman lives on her own and the whole world imagines she must be a witch…”

Cinderella retreats to the grave of her beloved mother on the hills, encountering a bird of prey who, in the best animal tradition in fairy tales, acts as a form of guide, leading her to a cave by the lake, a magical cave where the waterfall parts for her. Instead of a fairy godmother, here we have Mab (Jane Birkin), an odd being who is half-amused, half-offended when Cinders asks if she is a witch. She may not be a witch, but she does seem to have some magical abilities, and she helps Cinderella in her own peculiar way.

I somehow missed this when it was first aired, and I’m very glad I got a chance to see it now. While some of the effects are very early 2000s (not bad, just not as polished as you would expect today), that in fact adds to the charm here, giving the kingdom an other-worldly look that suits it quite well. And besides, it’s the story and characters which really matter here, and oh boy does Kathleen Turner clearly enjoy playing the wicked stepmother, in fact she seems to relish it, and she is delectably wicked here and, pardon the pun, having a ball with the role (as are Lucy Punch and Katrin Cartlidge as her nasty daughters).

This is an unusual, modern take on an old tale, played well, with some nice riffs on both popular culture and society (Turner inspecting her wicked daughters’ vast shoe collection and advising them “Remember the harder they are to walk in, the more effective”), while also tipping a knowing hat to the old folkloric tropes (“I hate happy endings”). This is a clever version of the Cinderella tale, with all the main beats given a nice, more contemporary twist (and yet still classic tropes), and it knows enough to have fun with it along the way, and take the viewer along too, with a big smile.

Cinderella is available now from Simply Media

Film: psychological horror in The Resident

The Resident,

Directed by John Ainslie

Starring Tianna Nori, Mark Matechuk, Krista Madison

You could be forgiven for thinking the story concept for The Resident (also known as The Sublet in the US) sounds not unfamiliar – a mother and young child mostly alone in a new apartment with odd noises and things happening, it does stir memories of Dark Water and other such offerings. But Canadian film-makers Black Fawn are getting themselves a bit of a rep in horror circles (they also did The Bite which Garth reviewed on here last year), and there was something about this that sparked my Spidey-sense and told me this was going to be worth checking out, and so it proved, for while the main idea of mother and child in possibly haunted new home is far from new, The Resident plows a different furrow from others in that field, offering up a genuinely creepy, psychological approach.

Joanna (Tianna Nori), her husband and her new baby have to move into temporary lodgings for his new job, and right from the start this is an apartment block that just screams out that there’s something wrong. It takes several attempts buzzing the intercom just to get into the block, then on schlepping up the stairs (just what you want with a baby stroller) to the apartment for rent they find no-one there, no sign of the landlord. But the door opens and there’s a not telling them to look around but if they don’t like it then pretty much leave and don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out. Not exactly a warm welcome. Oh, and there is a locked room in the apartment. Which hubby surmises must be where the landlord stores his personal items, but which you just know is going to be something else…

There’s a palpable sense of unease right from the start, just viewing the apartment, but once they move in the sense of disturbance grows. Much of the increasing sense that things just aren’t right comes from Joanna basically being at home by herself with the baby, day after day, in a strange city while her husband is out at his new job. She doesn’t know anyone here and, mysteriously, she never seems to bump into anyone from the neighbouring apartments coming or going. But she does hear them. Sometimes. A banging, banging, banging on the walls and other sounds.

And this is where The Resident takes a different tack from some haunted apartment tales – director Ainslie wisely uses the more mundane, everyday elements of Joanna’s life as a new mother in a strange city to both heighten her feelings of isolation and dislocation and yet at the same time also make you second guess her state of mind. Like many new mothers she’s already dealing with major life changes – the physical and emotional sides of pregnancy and giving birth, then finding yourself now mostly at home on your own during the work day, totally cut out of your previous routines. That is a difficult thing for most first-time mothers to adjust to, and here in a new city she doesn’t even have friends or relatives to come round, take them out, babysit or help out, increasing her isolation, and it doesn’t help that her husband is busy with his new job and his stress there means he is less than supportive even when he is at home…

And I found this was the element that really made The Resident work for me – that real-world side of things, of Joanna trying to cope with her new life and baby and new home is something that is very easy to empathise with, and grounds the spookier aspects. In fact, it not only grounds them it also offers the viewer a dilemma – how much of the increasingly strange things that seem to be happening are real? And how many are the products of a woman in a heightened emotional state? And that really helps drive The Resident into a much more psychological level as the viewer is left wondering what is real and what is not – and realising that even if it isn’t real, the effect is the same on poor Joanna. And what if it is real, what are those noises from neighbouring apartments where nobody every seems to be home, what’s in that locked room, what happened here before… With a lean running time The Resident builds atmosphere right from the start and increases the psychological pressure throughout, not outstaying its welcome, so keeping the tensions nice and taught.

The Resident is released on DVD, on-demand and download by Second Sight from May 22nd; this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Shadow of the Vampire

Great, I have a few days off to enjoy and what happens? I develop a smegging cold! Nuts. British Summer Time rolls around, the clocks go forward and cue everyone suddenly getting colds and flu. Still, it beats being at work and worrying what Alex is going to do with his omnipresent digital camera (yes, the one that provided Matthew’s Blog with my less than flattering pic).

So last night as I was in no fit state to go out I decided to have a mini vampathon. I watched Shadow of the Vampire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula on DVD. Love the conceit of Shadow, with Murnau directing a real vampire, posing as a method actor called Shrek who is playing a vampire… Very well made, good use of light and shadow – most appropriate considering Nosferatu is one of the high point of the Expressionist movement. The Coppola, despite it’s noble proclamation to be a definitive version based properly the book really isn’t anything of the kind. Instead of a horror tale we have a Gothic romance, but it’s still a very enjoyable movie for us old vamp fiends and Winona looks delectable in that red dress – dontcha love the zoom facility on DVD? What a biteable neck she has – mind you, you’d have to watch your possessions around her.

Finished off with a couple of episodes on old-fashioned VHS of my beloved Forever Knight – anyone else remember that? Actually I’m just listening to the second volume of the soundtrack from the series right now, all composed by Fred Mollin with nice little cameos by the lead actors. Nigel Bennett’s LeCroix is especially fine – the only good human is a bled human. So wonderfully unrepentant was LeCroix – a vampire who really enjoyed being an immortal bloodsucker, not a whiner like some of these modern vamps. He’d have got on well with Cassidy from Preacher.